" Any way you look at it, the setting is good stuff... "
Title: Exalted by White Wolf
Format: Epic Fantasy RPG
Reviewing Monkey: Furious George
The Hype: Breaking off from their angst-ridden World of Darkness line, White Wolf has created their own brand of angst-ridden fantasy.
What This Monkey Thought...
Story and Drama: The setting is one of
anime-inspired high-fantasy (yes, this means flying machines and giant robots…but
think less Gundam and more Escaflowne). And, as with most RPG settings, things
are not looking good for humanity. For the past seven centuries, the world of
Creation has enjoyed a relative peace after a period of plagues and invasions
by demons and faeries (worse than it sounds), but this peace is now unraveling.
The stabilizing force of The Realm, an empire ruled by the Terrestrial Exalted
(humans made powerful by magical abilities), has mysteriously lost its founder
and empress…creatively titled "The Empress"…and the Realm's noble houses and
their armies are now more concerned with filling the power vacuum left by her
absence than keeping the nasties that threaten the land at bay. Which leaves
the door open for another type of Exalted, the Solars.
As the story goes, the Terrestrial Exalted first came to power by overthrowing the corrupt, decadent, and eminently more powerful Solar Exalted of the First Age. But even in death the Solars were tenacious, reappearing time and again by entering mortal hosts, "Exalting" them with their powers. To deal with the threat these fresh Exalts posed, The Terrestrials implemented a well-funded and militarily backed "whack-a-mole" operation to smite new Solars as soon as they appeared. However, the internal strife of the Realm in recent times has allowed a number of Solars to escape such a fate: this is where the players step in.
The PC's play the role of a Solar Exalted, a human whose life is suddenly changed when they became host to the spirit of one of the former rulers of Creation. Since the characters are grounded in "normality" by their lives prior to their Exaltation, and since the spirit is just leasing them the powers until death rather than possessing them outright, they are not as detached or aloof as other possession games typically depict…just normal people with super powers thrust upon them. Once Exalted they must contend with the same hubris and misfortune that corrupted their ancestors of the First Age, and ultimately decide what causes they will struggle for, either trying to remain true to their former convictions or reforging their beliefs in light of what they've become.
Any way you look at it, the setting is good stuff, with a lot of potential for dramatic play and characters with a healthy balance between angst and ability. 5 out of 5
Layout and Presentation: The book's greatest
flaw is its organization and lack of a consistent feel. The artwork varies wildly
in style, ranging from anime to very realistic, often appearing more as generic
fantasy layout filler rather than mood-setting pieces.
Much of the content is organized by the different types (castes) of Solars. To look up the definition of a skill or power, you must first find the caste it is associated with (e.g. Melee belongs to the warrior-like Dawn caste, whereas Dodge is under the thief-like Night caste), which is incredibly annoying at first. Once you're familiar with the system, it's easy enough to find things, when you're unfamiliar with the system you're gonna be telling your players to hold on while you flip through the book desperately trying to determine the description of the performance skill.
On the positive side of things, the book contains a very thorough index (though you still won't be able to look up skills or powers alphabetically) as well as a detailed lexicon. 2 out of 5
Playability: Those familiar with White
Wolf's other games will definitely notice the similarities: the players adopt
the role of a powerful being, both a part of and apart from humanity (alas!),
who must hide their powers from a world that does not understand them (alack!)
ever-threatened by a dark destiny (forlorn!). And the similarities don't end
there: despite being separate from White Wolf's "World of Darkness" line, Exalted
is an amalgam of all their product lines bundled into a fantasy setting. You
effectively have Vampires, Were-beasties, Faeries, Ghosts, Demons, Mages, and...
well, maybe not Mummies…yet If you're tired of the World of Darkness, though,
don't worry; White Wolf puts enough of a twist on these familiar themes that
it's not World of Darkness rehashed. They effectively adapt mechanics from their
other lines to flesh out the setting, without just reprinting identical information.
The setting is enormous, providing the players with any number of causes to struggle for or fight against, along with the over-arching threat of the Realm to keep the players on their toes. And as the players engage in problem solving (be it through political machinations or hitting things until they go away), they must choose carefully on how much they wish to rely on their powers: too much magic and a Solar will flare up in a corona of light that will be very hard to explain away.
The White-Wolf system works well for this type of game, clearly distinguishing the capabilities of the Exalted and normal mortals, but not to a point where the players are ungovernable forces of nature. 4 out of 5
Desired Content: In its attempt to provide
an overview of an entire world, with dozens of competing factions of men, magical
beings, and everything in between, Exalted can come across as a little bewildering.
Creating a campaign with only the base book will involve a great deal of work
on the GM's part, as the world is too large to do more than broadly define regions
and specific city-states. If you have no trouble taking a general idea or theme
and running with it, then Exalted's content will suit you perfectly. If you
prefer to have more background in a setting before adding your own content,
the base book will not be enough. The book does go into specific detail of one
city, Nexus, a sort of cosmopolitan anarchy: but this city is so large and (deliberately)
confusing that background-oriented GM's won t find it of much help.
The book provides ample information on the various castes of Solar Exalted and the charms (magic powers) available to them. As all skills have charms to supplement them, these charms cover a wide range of game aspects beyond just combat; though, since the game is largely based on chop-socky, the focus is on fighting. Players will have to rely on a thorough GM to get full use out of their non-combat charms; the benefit of doubling the dice you roll for an attack is obvious, the usefulness of being able to sense ocean depth around a sailboat or being able to transcribe letters quickly may be less clear. The only charm-area where the book really seems to fall short on is Martial Arts. For a game that sells itself so much on wire-fu, having only one style seems lacking.
The base book does an admirable job of trying to at least touch upon all of the major forces-at-work. Other Exalted, in addition to the Solars, are presented as well, with the basic framework for each type provided in sufficient detail…making it easy enough to stock your campaign with baddies in the form of Lunar Exalted (furries), Abyssal Exalted (goths), and Sidereal Exalted (college Republicans).
In addition to the obligatory sections covering system mechanics and how to role play, the remainder of the content is divided between equipment and magical items. Aside from a very full weapons list, there's not a whole lot here--but the range is sufficient to give you ideas of the phat loot that survived from the first age. 4 out of 5
The Good: A unique world with a detailed history and a setting that provides a nice balance between kung-fu and story.
The Bad: Inconsistent presentation. Having such a large world and so many major powers at play presents a challenge for any GM or player to wrap their head around.
The Overall Ugly: The obscene number of supplements the game has spawned. Also, I could have done without the game explicitly telling me about sexual practices between the ghosts and the living.
What it's Worth: Market